Last Thursday at lunchtime a bird of prey caused quite a stir in downtown Pittsburgh when it perched on a light fixture and very publicly ate a pigeon.
Katie Cunningham sent me photographs of the bird and asked, “Is this a falcon or a hawk?” She guessed it was a hawk and she was right (it’s an immature red-tailed hawk). How could she be sure it’s not a peregrine?
Telling the difference between a falcon and a hawk is a common identification problem, so common that people often ask me for help.
Today I’ll tell you how to identify the birds yourself.
Right off the bat I’m going to narrow the scope. In western Pennsylvania you can see up to nine hawk and three falcon species depending on time of year and habitat. To make this manageable I’ll address the most common identification question faced by city folks: Is this bird a peregrine falcon or a red-tailed hawk?
First, ask yourself several key questions.
Is it a bird of prey? Birds of prey eat meat so they have hooked beaks (see the tip of the beak) and talons (big claws). If the bird does not have these features it’s neither a falcon nor a hawk and you can stop right there.
What time of year is it? Peregrines and red-tails live in western Pennsylvania year round so the time of year doesn’t eliminate either bird due to migration. However identification is more challenging in June and early July when the juvenile peregrines are flying around town. It’s easiest at any other time of year.
Where is the bird? In what habitat? Is it in the city on a building? (Could be either a peregrine or a red-tail) In the suburbs? (likely a red-tailed hawk) On a bridge? (either bird) On a light pole over the highway? (likely a red-tail) In a tree? (likely a red-tail) Standing on your picnic table? (likely a red-tail) Standing on the ground? (likely a red-tail) …But in June a juvenile peregrine might be found in some of the “red-tail” places.
Is the bird in the human zone? Is the bird perched close to humans and doesn’t even care about them? If so, it’s probably a red-tailed hawk …but is it June?
What does it look like?
Red-tailed hawks are bigger than crows, white on their chests and brown on their heads, faces, wings and backs. Their faces are brown all the way to their shoulders (no malar stripe). They have brown hash marks on their bellies called a “belly band” with white above and below. Only adult red-tailed hawks have rusty red tails. Juveniles have brown tails with horizontal stripes.
Peregrine falcons are about the size of crows, smaller than red-tailed hawks. Adults are charcoal gray and white. Their backs, wings and heads are charcoal gray, their chests are white and their bellies and legs are heavily striped (horizontally) with dark gray. Their cheeks are white behind dark gray sideburns called malar stripes.
Peregrines have malar stripes. Red-tailed hawks do not.
Here are several photo comparisons of the two: red-tailed hawk on left, peregrine on right.
Let’s look at two key features. Red-tailed hawks have brown cheeks. Peregrines have white cheeks behind the malar stripes. Red-tailed hawks have a brown belly band with white below. Peregrines are striped all the way down.
What’s this thing about June? Immature birds!
In June in Pittsburgh juvenile peregrines leave the nest and learn to fly. Immature peregrines are brown and cream-colored instead of gray and white like the adults. They have no white on their chests and the stripes on their bellies are vertical (immature) instead of horizontal (on adults).
Newly fledged juvenile peregrines may do almost anything, including perch in the human zone. Because they’re brown you can’t use color cues but the two key clues still apply: Red-tails have brown cheeks versus peregrines’ light cheeks. Red-tails have white lower bellies versus peregrines’ striped all the way down.
Here are photo comparisons of immature red-tailed hawks (left) and immature peregrines (right). Notice their cheeks and bellies.
In flight, does the bird have “fingers”?
Hawks (and eagles and vultures) have “fingers” on their wingtips. Falcons have pointy wings.
What is the likelihood of seeing either bird?
Red-tailed hawks are the most common hawk in North America. Peregrines are rare. If you say it’s a red-tailed hawk, you’re usually right. You’re unlikely to see a peregrine near ground level in Pittsburgh. That’s why we get excited about peregrines.
(Red-tailed hawk photos by Katie Cunningham and Steve Gosser, Peregrine photos by Kim Steininger and Chad+Chris Saladin. Cooper’s hawk photos below by Cris Hamilton and Marcy Cunkelman)
Another hawk that resembles a peregrine: the Cooper’s hawk
Many readers have asked for help identifying a brown-and-beige-colored bird of prey in their backyards. It has vertical chest stripes like a juvenile peregrine. If you have a similar bird in your backyard confirm that it …
- does not have a pronounced malar stripe on its face
- is hunting for birds
- moves so fast that it seems high strung
- jumps on the birds in the bushes and chases them through the trees
- has “fingers” on its wing tips (Accipiter silhouette above)
If so, it’s a Coopers hawk, a bird-eating bird of prey (Accipiters) that specializes in woodland habitat and hunt in tight spaces.
Immature Cooper’s hawks show up during winter in Pittsburgh. They’re the same color as immature peregrines but have much longer tails.